It is a common conception that people come to fiction, especially the speculative, to escape reality. And that is indeed one of the purposes it can serve. Another is that conversely to escaping, people come to fiction to encounter or experience reality. A paradox? After all, we already live in reality, one that is ubiquitous. We have it all around us, painfully so sometimes. Hence the need for an escape. But you see, reality has different facets, different windows, like eyes, that reveal different vistas.
This is why the consumption of fiction and SF/F based on other cultures and by people of other demographics is a necessity. Doing so helps us diversify our understanding and encounter all these different realities that lie beyond our immediate purview. What we are often steeped in is our own immediate reality, which is, while occasionally painful, also painfully limited.
It has often been surmised, most especially around discussions of war, climate change, natural disasters, and more recently the outbreak of COVID-19, in articles like this in Wired and on The Apeiron Blog we are living in a dystopia. This realization has weaned many of the need for apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian fiction, and has them preferring instead to immerse themselves in lighter, more upbeat and positive work. This is of course valid, as we all must do what we feel right. But beyond personal preferences of individuals for lighter, “happier” works in this period of gloom, there is a wider and more general assertion that dystopias, apocalypses, grimdark, dark fantasy, and the like are now unnecessary because we live in and have it all around us. A Publishers Weekly piece talks about dystopian fiction losing its lustre due to the pandemic and spells doom for the subgenre of doom. But is this really so? In a viral tweet, the account tweets its disagreement, which I quite agree with, saying that “Dystopian fiction is when you take things that happen in real life to marginalized populations and apply them to people with privilege.” The dystopian reality is not new and has been with us for a while. Its fictionalizing continues till date despite those debates regarding its relevance or necessity.
My Otherwise and Nommo award-winning novella, Ife-Iyoku, Tale of Imadeyunuagbon, also a finalist in the Nebula and Sturgeon award, is a dystopian tale. Prior to its publication, I submitted its draft to a beta reader for assessment, because I feared it was too dark and the reactions and experiences of some of the characters were extreme to an unreasonable and unbelievable degree. My beta reader confirmed my fears. There was no gainsaying that part of my intended market and audience in the West where I intended to publish it would find it so. But—he said—the story was deficient in yet another dimension: certain events and happenings in our society mirrored the ones in the book almost exactly. And the reactions and conclusions, climaxes of those in the real world, and our immediate environs were far worse than I painted in my work of fiction. My softer depiction of reality would be less believable to a certain audience base of readers, editors, and publishers than what life here threw at us, with no care at all for their willingness to believe or disbelieve it. It was too “strong,” and at the same time, not strong “enough.” The paradoxical difference lying in the gap between our realities.
Nigeria, where I live, became the poverty capital of the world in 2018 and maintained it for the next three years, having more poor people than India, the former poverty capital, with more than five times Nigeria’s population. We were surpassing them in sheer numbers, not just percentages. A population of 200m managing to have more poor people than one of over a billion with the closest poverty numbers in sight, illustrates just how steep and staggering those numbers are.
It is also number one in open defecation, with the fourth lowest life expectancy on earth, lower even than war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Palestine that has had conflict on and off for nearly seventy years. All this is understandable in a continent plagued by centuries of slavery—colonialism and continuing neo-colonialism, that has had its resources, both human and material, plundered. So this is not to be unreasonably critical of Nigeria’s woes. It is also plagued by a plethora of issues that follow these levels of poverty; lack of power, access, security, healthcare, and more.
In 2017 alone, there were about a hundred and fifty attacks mounted by Boko Haram. Ninety of them were armed assaults, and fifty-nine suicide attacks. If you divided the number of attacks by the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year, it would mean there were attacks one in every two days or so. Little more than two days, less than three. The residents of that region, and it was one concentrated region in Northern Nigeria, had to deal with deadly, fatal attacks every other day. No time to recover, to heal, to mourn their losses. That’s almost as many work days as an average civil servant in a white collar job somewhere sane had. Especially if you threw in leave time and public holidays. Meanwhile, these people had no leave periods, no holidays. If anything, the terrorists struck almost unfailingly on holidays. The one advantage holidays then offered was one could count on an attack and move to protect themselves or plan for it on those days. It’s almost mind boggling that this is possible. At one hundred and fifty attacks, one every two days, one wonders the level of organization the terrorists dedicated to killing innocent people. No respite for them as well, time to recover, rest, plan, the logistics of it. Every. Other. Day.
I casually consider the sheer resources and willpower it would take to pull off something like this, in case I wanted to create a force of evil that dedicated, in my fiction works. Then I abandoned the thought for being a touch too much. But real people were this much relentless in committing evil as any villain or Dark Lord ever was. They displayed a thoroughness in inflicting pain and damage that would be unbelievable from almost any force but a zombie army, if written in fiction. The zombie army being believable for their mindlessness. Yet these were living, breathing human beings who planned and affected this consistently, for a whole year. Too dystopian? Perhaps. But you’d have a hard time convincing the people it happened to. But then again, you might not, there being a chance they want to disbelieve it just as much as you do. They may indeed blur some of the details. But the trauma of it will be etched in each of them, burned & branded into their brains, seared into their souls even as their bodies crumble, passing pain on to their progeny through DNA. And that’s the lucky ones, the survivors who live to tell this deeply tragic, dastardly, and “too dystopian” tale.
Recently, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending 50 years of federal abortion rights and paving the way for the rolling back of LGBTQIA+ rights, which conservative politicians have hinted is coming. This led to widespread panic and outrage by people who value life, bodily autonomy, and freedom both in U.S. and round the world.
After Roe v. Wade was overturned, many parallels were drawn between the society of today and the one in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Meanwhile those events are akin to those that have happened to Black and Indigenous women in the past, and people of colour. Forced sterilizations, abuse, and violation of bodily rights are currently happening to people in ICE custody, till date. Margaret Atwood herself admitted that when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale “nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time.” Yet people want to, and hold the view, that these are new or recent events.
In Nigeria, abortions have always been illegal and as deadly as the onslaught of Boko Haram mentioned earlier has been, more people die from unsafe abortions in a year than from direct Boko Haram attacks in nearly a decade. Being gay is also criminalized meanwhile, with a death penalty, carried out by stoning in Northern Nigeria and a fourteen-year jail term in Southern Nigeria.
Some other dystopic facts about Nigeria, it has the largest number of out-of-school children on earth, blasphemy is a crime with the capital punishment to be carried out by stoning, in Northern Nigeria. Suicide is, or rather its attempt, is also a crime. Since if you succeed, you are beyond the arm of the law. Long as it claims to be, it’s thankfully not that long. This is ironic though when taken with everything else. You see, you cannot live. But you must not deny the government the pleasure of killing you. The dystopia is here, has always been. It’s just not evenly distributed.
I have found generally, on further and sometimes casual reflection, that the experiences I and people I have known living in Nigeria and on the continent have had are worse than the experiences of protagonists and characters in some dystopias and dark fantasy stories I have read. Our daily lived experiences are sometimes harsher than the sufferings of characters deliberately crafted to be tortured and wrung through great suffering.
In essence, some people experience a reality that is beyond the wildest imaginings of some other people. This is why when people from certain regions that have been dubbed Third World or developing, marginalized people, write dystopias, even non-dystopias, any kind of reflection of their reality which is flavoured with a certain harshness, it’s considered too unpalatable, unbelievable, too dystopian, especially at the moment, by the global publishing machinery which is largely Western. The question we should be asking though is too dystopian for whom?
You see, our reality was far starker than the dystopia I wrote, which was already too stark a reality for many in a different clime. So when we say fiction helps us escape reality, which reality are we trying to escape? Our own, or knowledge of the lived reality of billions of people from a different place and time? An escape that blinds us as to the true nature of the world and limits or curtails our understanding of it? Fiction can indeed help us to escape reality; dystopias, the dark parts of reality. But they can also be windows to other worlds. Lived, past, and present realities of others.
There is of course reality fatigue, and one may need to step away from it all for the sake of their mental health. And that is an entirely valid reaction. But claiming that all fictional dystopias are redundant because we NOW live in one is a dangerously high level of presumption and an inaccurate assertion. Because we have always lived in one, there has always been a dystopia somewhere in this world that we were only unaware of. And going by the logic of dystopian storytelling being redundant because we are in one, dystopian storytelling should have been redundant since forever, due to the presence of an existing, dystopic reality at some place and time or the other. But the timeline and positioning of Western privilege does not determine the actual position of the world and what is relevant or irrelevant. To assume that is mere Eurocentric hubris.
Beyond Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, my Otherwise & Nommo award-winning, Nebula, BSFA, and Sturgeon nominated novella Ife-Iyoku, Tale of Imadeyunuagbon examined gender issues women have lived with and continue to face till date. Tlotlo Tsamaase, a Nommo award-winning, Lambda nominated, queer Motswana writer, uses work you can term dark or dystopian to interrogate and come to terms with issues which queer, African, and disabled people can relate with in her works such as “Dreamports,” “Eclipse of Our Sins,” “Behind Our Irises,” “District to Cervix,” and “Peeling Time,” forthcoming in the Africa Risen anthology.
Tananarive Due, a doyen of Black horror, talks about how Black horror is often a critique of race relations. She often talks about the state of being in alternate realities that speak to a Black American experience. She also cites Jordan Peele, Steven Barnes with whom she has worked in shows like Horror Noire in Shudder and AMC, and others, producing works that give Black people a space to examine, confront, and come to terms with the horrors they live with daily.
O2 Arena, my Nebula award-winning, Hugo, BSFA & BFA shortlisted climate fiction novelette, interrogates climate crises in the event of neo- and post-colonialism, through the lens of disabled characters dealing with rampant sexism, homophobia, and a vicious fight for the very air in their lungs. While it may be heavy to consume, it is a true representation of Lagos where it is set and a story which even some cancer survivors have found representative of their experiences. Sheree Renée Thomas, a Memphis writer, editor, and pioneer in Black speculative literature, also puts out work, like her collection Nine Bar Blues, and stories in it like “The Parts That Make Us Monsters” and “Ancestries” reprinted in the Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology, that though dark, interrogate Blackness on levels that help readers see themselves and their worlds, their realities in her work.
I have a short story out in the May/June 2022 issue of Asimov’s and reprinted in Galaxy’s Edge titled “Destiny Delayed.” In it, a man trades the destiny of his daughter to a firm that offers loans to the destitute, taking the destinies of their young, promising daughters as collateral. They repurpose the destinies for huge profits when the debts inevitably default, and the daughters do indeed become collateral damage. The story was inspired by similar practices in Southern Nigeria that has parents clearing or paying off debts by giving away their young daughters, in child and underage marriages in Northern Nigeria. It’s also a metaphor for the general exploitation and control of birthing bodies that is the order of the day.
What do all these dark, horror or dystopian works have in common? They are beautiful works of literature that serve a very practical purpose even in times like these. And it would be remiss and misguided to dismiss them, and indeed a good number of the most iconic works of literature, to portray them as unfit for consumption because of the “times we now live in” .
Part of the argument against reading dystopias in a time of dystopia is that when they too mirror the reality we live in, it can create an emotional overload, a sort of squared experience of the societal breakdowns they examine. But if this were so, that dystopian fiction creates double the effect then they would also cease to have a strong effect, like a meal eaten too often or a game played constantly will lose its power to delight. Dystopian stories would quickly become redundant. They would become too familiar, too cliché, and lose their power to hurt us. But no matter how often it’s created or consumed, dystopian fiction never really loses its power, because its consumption does not just have one effect or purpose. Dystopian stories are not monolithic in effect. While they can horrify, they can also provide catharsis, warnings, and myriad other useful reactions that continue to benefit the consumer and society at large, in any time at all.
We will always need dystopian storytelling. I believe that dystopias in fiction present an alternate, truer view of reality than our actual reality. This is why some stories cause so much outrage and generate such long and intense discussions, when even the things they examine happen daily without causing such a stir or reaction. Take the movie Acrimony, for example. It, in my opinion, could be seen as Horror, with Taraji P. Henson’s character’s understandable but scary decline into insanity, stalking, and deadly assault after a life of mind-bending trauma many Black women must endure at the hands of Black men and a white society. It is no news that the patriarchy allows men to build their careers off the backs of women and those women, sacrificial wives, sometimes rebound in tragic ways from the force of their broken backs recoiling. So what was different between the story and the reality we live in daily but hardly raise an eyebrow to?
I think that these stories are bereft of the bias lived reality has when they are populated with characters we know, as life so often is. We are unreliable judges in reality’s cases and so subconsciously recuse ourselves because of a likelihood of bias and fail to pass appropriate and often any judgement. Conversely, true justice is blind, so it’s easier to recognize, for example, abuse in a random character in a story than in say, a parent or partner we love.
There is this airbrush effect the mind applies to our lived reality, self-protective perhaps, in a bid to preserve our mental health and sanity. This is why the movie Don’t Look Up caused such a stir even amongst people that brush aside climate fiction dangers and disasters that happen daily. It’s like we lose that natural airbrush effect in fiction, making it a tad more accurate and reliable an examination of reality. We don’t think it’s real, and our defences are consequently not up. So the full force of the told reality hits us with an impact the lived one often does not. Doesn’t this then make it even more imperative to write dystopias? Especially now? To harness and exploit the window of opportunity they create in allowing us to showcase realities in the most powerful and honest ways, even beyond what lived reality can?
A lot of people cry more from witnessing fictional suffering than from the one in their lived reality. And I believe that this is one of the purposes of trigger warnings, an attempt to reinstall some of those defences we lose when we come to a non-lived reality. After all, there are no trigger warnings to events happening in real time. Though, I believe our minds do dull the force of the blow.
The question then should be: do we really want to escape? Is getting fiction sanitized for Western sensibilities the solution? The realities we live in are harsh. But are we even steeped in them enough? Won’t escaping be like plugging into a false reality like The Matrix? Shouldn’t we immerse ourselves in the multiple realities of others rather than hide from them? Be more Sense8 than Matrix? The problems of the world are myriad so will it not then take myriad perspectives and knowledge from all the realities they stem from to solve them?
As with all questions, there are multiple answers, like there are multiple realities. May we continue to examine them in a manner that makes our experiences and humanity the best it can be, for us and those around us.
© 2022 Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki